A stinker of a day in the middle of winter…rain, rain, rain…from the moment I started out on the delivery run to Swan Reach and beyond till I came toward home. One of those steady, drenching rains that every farmer dreams about and every delivery driver hates!…Standing with the sack-truck at the door of a house that forgot or didn’t know you were coming that day..rain trickling down your collar, wet package, wet delivery docket..unsigned..and a long way home….love it…good luck to you farmers…
Coming down Sedan Hill in that foggy rain was a tricky thing, all those twists and turns, but once on the flats, it was usually plain sailing. But this day it was all squinty-eye and flapping windscreen-wipers.
I was on the straight stretch coming toward Sedan…The window had fogged up a tad and I was wiping it with my hanky…was coming near the edge of town, there by Ziedel’s bridge when I saw a woman there at the bridge..she was leaning over the rail looking into the creek-bed…
“That’s weird” I thought…out in the pouring rain…I pulled up on the road and wound the window down..
“You right?” I called out…She turned to me, and for all the world she looked far from alright..she looked terrified.
“My child!”..she called back “ I have lost my boy”…and she turned once again to lean over the rail to look into the creek-bed. I thought it somewhat strange as there was no water in the creek..it takes one hell of a storm to bring water this far from the hills in those dry-weather creeks on the flats.
“Perhaps he’s hiding under the bridge?” I thought to assist..”And he doesn’t want to be found”.
The woman..aged about in her mid-twenties, attractive, with a full head of the most flaming red hair, just turned her terrified face to me and cried again in the same plaintive voice..
“My child!…I have lost my boy”….
“Just a minute, miss…I’ll pull over off the road and come give you a hand…” I drove off the highway and parked the van…But when I got out to assist the woman, not a willing participant for someone of my portly bulk I apologise not!.. I couldn’t see her..I couldn’t see anyone in that driving rain. I looked around..I walked to the bridge…but there was no-one there…not a soul.
“Hello!” I called…”Are you there?”…no answer..I was a tad flummoxed as to what to do..How did she just walk away?…I admit it was a heavy drenching rain that made even staring wide-eyed difficult, but how could I have missed her?..What more could I do?…actually, there was nothing I could do, now soaked as I was except get back in the van and drive away.
I did my round of deliveries and by the time I drove off the Swan Reach ferry heading back home, I was really pissed off!…my shirt was still clammy on my back against the driver’s seat…my hair still waxy and lank over my forehead…I wasn’t a cheery soul and when Sedan Hotel came in sight, it was with little hesitation that I pulled in for a quick shot of a warming fluid.
“Make it a double, China” I instructed the barman “ The old furnace needs a tad firing up”. He poured me a generous double of the old, crinkly-bottle of Beenleigh Rum with a wry smile. The atmosphere in the bar was sombre and dark…the day outside let little light through the windows and the electric light threw a dull illumination onto the bar top.
“Been out in the weather?” he motioned to my wet clothes as he rang up the till. I put the glass on the bar-mat and gave a shiver of satisfaction.
“Been out on the road, you mean”…I replied…”this” and I plucked the damp shirt off my chest ” is the fault of one of your local ladies”…I took another slug of that hotel’s wonderful libation.
“ And what lady would that be?” the barman heaved his chest in a silent laugh.
“ Redhead…out in the rain”..I now sipped the rum..” down at the bridge there just out of town” I continued to fatten out the situation…” out in the bloody pouring rain looking for her kid”…I sneered.
There was a marked silence now in the bar, and several of the other male patrons suddenly looked to me…I felt I was being doubted..
“What?…what?…” I opened my hands at them questioningly..” How do you think I got so wet?…you think I was kicking a footy down the road for fun or something?..” I gulped the remainder of my drink and turned to go..
“Hold on..” the barman said “ A redhead?…at Ziedels bridge?” the barman quizzed me.
“I don’t know who’s bridge it is…but yes..a redhead..just there at the bridge as you come into town from the Barossa..a redhead, in the pouring rain….” They all just stared at me..” There at the bridge, calling out that she had lost her child…no!..hang on …her son!…that’s it…her son!” …You could’a heard a pin drop.
“ .’My child…I’ve lost my boy!’ she called” I looked one to the other of the staring eyes. The barman broke the silence..
“Did she look like this woman?” and the barman placed a small, framed photograph on the bar in front of me….and there she was, sure as I saw her just a couple of hours ago…a beautiful young woman with the most wonderful locks of flaming red hair…THAT, I couldn’t miss…there was name under the portrait..I read it out quietly..
“ Cherry Holmstrom”…I read..” Cherry?…it sounds like a fruit rather than a name…but yes that’s her alright.” I tapped the photo…”why..is she related to you or something?”
The barman placed the photo back into an enclave above the counter.
“Her name really was “Cherie”…but with that red hair and her sweet looks, she got called “Cherry”..as a kind of affectionate name by the local men.” The barman finished with a sad turning of his head.
“Was? “ I asked “What do you mean; WAS?…has something happened to her since this morning?” I asked with I must admit an unbelieving chuckle on my lips…But you could have knocked me over with a feather when he answered…
“She’s been dead at least sixty years now.” And he stared dead-pan at me. “sixty years ago today as a matter of fact”.
“Riiiight” I said quietly, looking from one of those locals to another in turn..”Now it’s my turn to ask some questions..but first you better get me another of that drink I just had.” And I reached for my wallet.
The barman waved my proffered note away…
“This one’s on the house” and he placed a big, fat tumbler of ‘Crinkly ’ in front of me. He then leant toward me in a confiding manner..one arm on the bar and he spoke softly..
“Cherry was a local girl..you know..” and he gave me an exaggerated wink “ You see these other blokes here..?” I counted them out…there were six of them..an even half dozen. “ They all went out with her at one time or the other…on different days..but around the same time..and though they knew that Cherry was seeing other chaps, they didn’t let on to each other…You see, Cherry was one hell of a good looker and those sorts are a scarcity out in this part of the world…Oh there are any number of good, solid women, but Cherry…well..she was something special…”
I had been looking at those other old men there as the barman spoke, and I could see they all had eyes that looked as if they had been weeping…strange..I would have on any other day put it down to the dust in the air..except today it was this drenching rain.
“ So all these blokes here were once the boyfriend of this Cherry?”
“Yes” . the barman answered.
“And they never confronted her or each other about the situation?” I asked.
“No…because, you see..they all loved her and they didn’t want to lose her…so when one said he was going to see his girl that night, though the other knew who it was and would ask..: “and is that Cherry?” the one would answer ..: “No..It’s her sister” and the other would nod in recognition of the denial…and so they all got to continue to go out with Cherry..and she was happy to accommodate them..each in his turn…and she would arrange to meet up with them at the “seven cross roads” junction…about a mile out on the east side of town. That’s how it eventually got to be named “The Seven Sisters” junction, because they all at one time or the other admitted to going out with “the sister”….you see.”
“But tell me,” I leaned in closer “Why are their eyes all red like that?…it looks like they have been crying…?”
The barman looked to the men for what seemed a long time..then he turned to me..
“That’s probably because they have been weeping for the loss of her this last sixty years”.
I thought he was having me on..and I giggled a tad..but he looked dead-pan.
“Kevin!” the barman called to one of the men “You went ‘walking’ with Cherry, didn’t you?”
“Too right”. The man called Kevin answered “But not to the end of the road..” and his eyes looked like they watered up a little at the thought. The barman went on to me with a soft tone..
“ That’s because she chose another one of them and married him…she then became pregnant..like she was waiting for the right time..”
“But hang on”…I countered “ I actually SAW that woman there at the bridge this morning “I called to her and she replied that bit..about..about losing her child..her boy….I KNOW what I saw!” I insisted…then I settled..” I know what I heard!”.
“Yes…she lost her child with a miscarriage on the night of the storm.”
The barman decided he’d settle it…he called to one of the weeping men..
“Jack, mind the bar for a bit , will you?” and to me he whispered “C’mon…show me just where you saw the woman…”
I finished the drink and we went to my van…The barman introduced himself as Frank and we shook hands on it…The rain was still bucketing down like it was never going to ease up..
On the way to the bridge, Frank told me of that night’s events sixty years ago..
“ A wild, wild night with one of the worse storms in the district…much like this one..the rains in the hills being much heavier, sent a wall of storm water down the usually dry creek beds and Ziedel’s Bridge was washed away…the blokes from the town..those fellows you saw back there in the bar were all there at the bridge getting ready to set up road blocks against any traffic..But then they looked into the driving rain up the road..They could see a motorcycle’s light coming from the opposite side of the bridge down the road out of the driving rain..
“Who’s the fool riding out in this rain?” Clarrie yelled..and then they realised when they heard the familiar note of the exhaust of Cherry’s “BSA Bantam” motorcycle..
“It’s Cherry!” one of the men cried “for God’s sake warn her about the bridge!” and they all ran toward her down the road, waving their arms..but whether it was the driving rain or the whipped up sleet, she didn’t see their warning and they watched helpless as she plunged onto the washed out bridge and into the raging torrent. All the men rushed to the bridge to rescue her..
They did eventually get her out, but she was pinned under her motorbike and the washed down debris for quite some time, so that she almost drowned. And when they finally got her onto the road, there was blood everywhere running from her lower body..They thought at first that she was injured from the accident, but it was a miscarriage she was having..she was losing her baby..for she was heavily pregnant at the time.
Cherie looked down at the blood in horror, for she immediately knew what was happening..
“My child!…I’ve lost my boy!” she cried…and she kept crying over and over that she had lost her boy..
The men tried to comfort her, but she wouldn’t be and she tore from their arms and with a mighty effort, ran toward the bridge calling out ..:’I’ve lost my boy!…I’ve lost my child in the waters!” and she flung herself into the muddy, murky torrent…and this time the men couldn’t find her…and she drowned there along with her lost child… though in reality, she couldn’t have known then that it was a boy..though it did turn out to be that when they retrieved the body later…”
We had arrived at the bridge and I stopped the van and pulled on the handbrake..
“Well, she must have been one hell of a woman to keep six blokes on the hop at the one time”…I snorted…”Here, Frank..put this cap on..it’s pissing down and you might as well keep that head dry.” And I handed Frank a cap..” I got this hoodie” I said.
Frank was about to step out of the cabin ..he paused and then said..:
“Seven…there were seven men..There was the one she married and whose child died along with her that night.”
I was a little taken aback by his words..
“So who was the seventh?” I asked…Frank was already out of the van and he answered just before he closed the door..
“He was the biggest fool of them all, for it was he sent her out in that storm to go to the hotel to get him a flagon of wine…It was ME!…Me, the biggest fool of them all”. And Frank looked to me and he was weeping even more that those other six men back at the hotel..he then slammed the door shut.
I jumped out of the van, paused and did my hoodie jacket up and went to meet Frank at the back of the van..And I tell you as true as I stand here before you..he was gone!..There was no-one there, and what was just a few hours ago a dry creek-bed was now a raging torrent..and the rain..the rain..
“Frank!….Frank!” I called..but there was no answer…then I saw that cap I had given him swirling in an eddy near the edge of the bridge…I sincerely believed he had lost his mind and jumped into the wild waters…
I panicked..I looked about wildly for a quick time then I remembered the others there at the hotel and I jumped back into the van and spun those wheels in my rush to get back to the pub to get help..I parked the van in the street, not even worrying about it. I rushed through the door into that bar expecting to see those half dozen dour fellows quietly sitting there…instead, I saw colour, light and a mixture of men and women laughing and drinking.. a juke-box in the corner was playing a loud song…
I must have looked a sight standing there soaking wet, wild-eyed and in a state of shock, for the barmaid and several patrons looked at me with raised eyebrows..
“Hell man! ..” the barmaid exclaimed “have YOU been sweatin’!” and they all laughed and laughed…and indeed, they had every right to, for when I looked to the windows, all I could see was sunshine..no rain..no wild afternoon..just laughter and sunshine…
I did a complete, slow three-sixty turn around of the room and just stared and stared while I tried to work out what I was seeing…Realising that there was something weirdly strange going on, I made some lame excuse saying I fell in the river while working my boat and quickly made my escape. I drove from that place with my mind very troubled and confused..but I drove and drove away like a man hunted…and even now, even if you doubt what I have just told you, I say it is as true as the day I was born…..
I swear it!